It is notoriously hard to get to grips with the youth. Advertisers hate it. The age group of 15–24 — of which, incidentally, I am still part — is notoriously fickle. They define themselves almost in terms of what they are not rather than what they are.
That is the explanation being given to the counter-intuitive finding by Ofcom that the proportion of 15–24-year-olds using Facebook has decreased in the past year. Facebook as a whole is still growing. But the problem is that it’s now full of parents and teachers, and it would be deeply uncool to be using a website like that.
In the same week, a Nielsen study has shown that teenagers don’t use Twitter. It has been long suspected that they never did use Twitter in large numbers, but now there are figures to prove it.
That came just weeks after a 15-year-old doing work experience made a splash with Morgan Stanley who were trying to get a grip on what the future might look like. Matthew Robson said, among other things, that Twitter is for old people only.
It probably comes a surprise to some. Even Mashable implies it wouldn’t have believed it if it hadn’t seen the figures. I am sure there are lots of people out there who imagine sites like Facebook and Twitter being full of youths donning virtual hoodies and organising virtual knifings. But young people are not so easy to pin down. The Ofcom report declines to tell us what young people actually are spending their time online doing, although we know for sure that they are online in their droves.
Mine is the first generation to have grown up with the internet. And like every shift in in youth culture, from rock and roll to video games, it gets people thinking about the possible downsides of growing up in a new environment. So they say that the internet gives you a short attention span. Or it dehumanises community life and leads to suicide.
I was recently emailed by a reader and occasional commenter here, Fran Walker. She was curious to know, what with me being a youth and all, if I have a life outside the computer?
As the worry of tinies not being able to interact with other humans, and the problems this may later lead to, is current news, it makes me wonder how you get on, as I regard you as one of the first of the “totally familiar with computers generation”? My son, who is 39 and lives in Taiwan, uses them for specific tasks, dislikes emails, prefers phone calls, and was in the first lot at school when computers were introduced, but he had a computer free childhood before that (say before 12 or 13), whereas, I suspect you had access to your parents’ computer since you can remember?
Like, I suspect, most people my age, I do indeed have a life outside of the computer, although it’s true I spend a lot of time on it. Partly this is because most of my work requires me to use the computer. Then, much of my spare time is consumed by the search for work, which is easiest to do on the internet.
There is also the plain fact that I love being connected to the internet for a whole host of reasons. Most of all, it brings me into contact with so many people I otherwise would not have. And it enables me to contact existing friends easily and comfortably. As Shane Richmond pointed out in his response to Vincent Nichols, the internet “enriches communication, it doesn’t destroy it.”
It is definitely the case that people in my generation are more familiar with computers. When I was young my parents had a BBC Micro, although it was quite old-fashioned even then. As far as I was concerned it was only really good for playing quite rudimentary games, when I could have been playing more sophisticated console games.
We only really got a contemporary computer in the late 1990s, and access to the internet came after that. By that time I was into my teens, so I can definitely remember a pre-internet era. I think for my generation, there were still a lot of people who didn’t have experience with the internet until they were fairly old.
I certainly remember when we started using the internet at school during my standard grades, aged about 15 or 16, there was at least one person in my class who had never used the internet before. Mind you, it’s true that I remember it so vividly because it was so unusual.
People often pose the hypothetical question, “could you survive for a day without the internet?” I recently went away for a short break, and I probably spent longer away from the internet than I have done for years.
Mind you, I expected to still be connected. But thanks to O2’s shaky 3G service it wasn’t to be. That was quite annoying because I wanted to contact people through Twitter. But it wasn’t the end of the world. I had a lot to do anyway, and was focusing on doing the things I wanted to do on my break.
As for voluntarily foregoing access, I think it would be difficult but not impossible. Certainly, one of the first things I do when I get up in the morning is check the internet, and it’s one of the last things I do at night. Would there be any point in not checking? I don’t think so.
A thought experiment like this is not terribly useful. You could try to “survive” a day without the internet, but what would it prove? Could you go for a week without reading your post? Or a month without reading newspapers? I certainly couldn’t survive a day without listening to the radio — I would go round the bend very quickly if I was deprived of it. Is that healthy or unhealthy?
For my generation, having a life outside the computer is no problem. Certainly, I spend a while on the computer. But many people might spend that time watching bad television or getting steaming drunk down the pub, which is much less healthy than spending your time reading Wikipedia.
But — and this is where I start to show that I am at the older end of the “youth” bracket — there is a but. My generation is not the first to grow up having not known a pre-internet world. In fact, I haven’t even had access to the internet for half of my life. So the real people to ask about the worry of an internet-obsessed world would be those who are currently 10 or under, and have never known a pre-internet home or school.
However, I would predict that, like Elvis’s dangerously swinging pelvis, we will come to view as quaint the fact that there was ever any concern.